The Beast in the Red Forest(55)
Author:Sam Eastland


    ‘Now you can drive yourself!’ said Zolkin.

    Clutching the keys tightly in his fist, Malashenko bowed his head in solemn gratitude. There would be no gold, but at least he might escape with his life.

    Barabanschikov waved farewell to his men and climbed aboard.

    Zolkin went next, clambering into the aircraft without so much as a backward glance, as if afraid that his luck might give out before the plane’s wheels left the ground.

    Now only Kirov and Pekkala remained.

    ‘Be quick!’ called the pilot, as he beckoned to them.

    Pekkala bid farewell to Malashenko, but as he shook hands with the man, Pekkala noticed the gun which Malashenko had tucked into his belt. ‘That Walther,’ he said. ‘Where did you get it?’

    ‘At the cabin,’ replied Malashenko, not thinking fast enough to lie. ‘It belonged to the dead man. It was lying on the floor, so I took it.’

    ‘But the gun used to kill Colonel Andrich was 7.62 mm,’ said Pekkala. ‘A Walther P38 takes 9-mm ammunition.’

    Malashenko was barely listening. His thoughts were focused on the idea that Pekkala might try to confiscate the gun as evidence for his investigation. ‘If you don’t mind my saying so,’ he said defiantly, ‘it’s the least that bastard could part with after blowing my cabin to bits.’

    But Kirov understood. ‘Do you think there might have been two agents?’

    Pekkala turned to Malashenko. ‘That bullet you gave to Major Kirov. Are you certain it came from the cabin?’

    ‘Of course I am certain!’ spluttered Malashenko, as panic swirled through his mind. Does he suspect? he wondered. Are they accusing me? ‘Maybe he had two guns. So what?’

    Pekkala shook his head. ‘It is unlikely that he would have been carrying two pistols, of different calibres. If there is another agent, the fact that he abandoned his colleague without trying to conceal any of the evidence means that he left in a hurry. He may even have been wounded, in which case he might not have gone far. Whatever the answer, the cabin must be searched again for any sign that the dead agent might not have been there by himself.’

    ‘But, Inspector,’ Kirov protested, ‘Stalin himself has ordered us back to Moscow and the plane is about to depart!’

    ‘That is why you must be on it,’ Pekkala told him. ‘Deliver Barabanschikov to the Kremlin. Tell Stalin that I will head for Moscow as soon as I have some answers. In the meantime, Malashenko and I will return to the cabin to search for more evidence.’

    Hearing this, Malashenko could scarcely believe his good fortune. ‘I will take us there at once!’ he said, holding up the keys to Zolkin’s Jeep.

    Minutes later, with Kirov aboard, the plane taxied for take-off. Its engines roaring, the machine rolled slowly forward, gathering speed until the wheels lifted off the ground and folded upwards into the belly of the fuselage. It climbed and climbed, the sounds of the motors already fading, until it vanished completely in the clouds.

    By then, Malashenko and Pekkala were already on their way to the cabin.

    The crowd had begun to disperse, walking back along the road to Rovno. The celebration was over now, replaced by a sense of uncertainty about what lay ahead. Soldier and partisan alike knew that, with one message from Moscow, they might all become enemies again.

    *

    ‘Another telegram, Comrade Stalin.’ Poskrebychev stepped into the office. ‘The pilot of the cargo plane has radioed to say that he has taken off and is now en route to Moscow.’

    ‘Good!’ said Stalin. ‘It’s time we had Pekkala back again.’

    With a pained expression on his face, Poskrebychev stepped forward and placed a piece of paper on Stalin’s desk. ‘As you will see, Comrade Stalin, the passenger manifest does not include Pekkala’s name. It appears that he is not on the plane.’

    ‘What?’ gasped Stalin, snatching up the manifest.

    ‘I’m sure there is some logical explanation,’ Poskrebychev said hopefully.

    Stalin crumpled up the message and bounced it off Poskrebychev’s chest. ‘Of course there is, you fool! He has defied me yet again!’

    ‘Surely not,’ muttered Poskrebychev.

    ‘Well, radio the plane and find out!’ bellowed Stalin.

    Poskrebychev swallowed. ‘They will be out of radio contact until the plane arrives in Moscow. Those were your orders, Comrade Stalin.’

    Stalin smashed both fists upon his desk, causing his brass ashtray to leap into the air, spilling dozens of cigarette butts and the grey dust of tobacco ash. ‘That Finnish bastard! That black-hearted troll!’

    ‘The flight is scheduled to take about twelve hours. Only twelve hours, Comrade Stalin.’

    ‘Only? That’s time enough for him to disappear again. No, Poskrebychev.’ Stalin wagged one stubby finger back and forth, like a miniature windscreen wiper. ‘I have no intention of waiting. Get me Akhatov.’

    ‘Akhatov? The Siberian? The . . .’

    ‘You know who he is. Now just get him, and make sure to have a fast plane standing by, ready to transport him to Rovno.’

    ‘But . . .’ Poskrebychev’s mouth opened and closed, like a fish pulled from the water.

    ‘Go!’ screamed Stalin.

    Without another word, Poskrebychev scrambled from the room and shut the door.

    Alone now, Stalin settled back into his chair. He rubbed his face, leaving red streaks in the pockmarked skin. The anger he felt was almost as great as his confusion. Pekkala’s refusal to return to Moscow was, for Stalin, not only baffling but personal. More than once, he had extended the hand of friendship to the Emerald Eye, but never with any success. Others would have killed for such an offer of comradeship.

    That Stalin had tried several times to murder Pekkala was not, in his own mind, mutually exclusive to the friendship he had hoped to kindle. One of the reasons Stalin had remained in power was that he had always been prepared to liquidate anyone. Whether they were friends or family made no difference. For Stalin, power and friendship did not overlap and the mistaken belief that they did had cost many people their lives. He had always thought that a man of Pekkala’s intelligence would understand such a thing. Apparently, thought Stalin, I have been mistaken.

    Although Stalin could barely admit it, even to himself, he was jealous of Major Kirov and Pekkala, of the cramped office they shared and the banter of their conversations, to which he often listened through the bugging devices he had ordered to be installed. He envied the meals they cooked on Friday afternoons. With his mouth watering at the sound of the cutlery clinking on their plates he would fetch out one of several tins of sardines in olive oil and tomato sauce, which he always kept on hand in his desk drawer. Tucking a handkerchief into his collar, Stalin would eat the sardines with his bare hands, spitting the bones back into the tin. Now and then, he would pause to adjust the headphones with his greasy, fish-scaled fingers, all the while snuffling with laughter at the jokes which passed between Kirov and Pekkala.

    In spite of everything, he had missed the Emerald Eye. Yes, it was true that, after the Amber Room incident, he had ordered Pekkala to be liquidated immediately. It was also true that he had commanded Special Operations to begin surveillance upon Major Kirov, in the futile hope that the great Inspector might make himself known to his assistant. But things were different now. Stalin’s rage had subsided and, until today, he had felt ready to purge this from the tally sheet that he kept inside his head of the many snubs, real or imagined, but both equally damning, which he had received over the years. In the case of Pekkala, it was a very long list, in fact unequalled by anyone still living. To forgo the satisfaction of punishment was a gift more valuable than any Stalin had given out before, which made Pekkala’s disappearance all the more wounding to his pride.

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